Bill Wilson’s Talk To The Manhattan Group
New York City, N.Y., 1955
Already, the history of AA is being lost in the mists of its twenty-one years of antiquity. I venture that very few people here could recount in any consecutive way the steps on the road that led from the kitchen table to where we are tonight in this Manhattan Group.
It is especially fitting that we recount the history, because at St. Louis this summer, a great event occurred. This Society declared that it had come of age and it took full possession of its Legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service. It marked the time when Lois and I, being parents of a family now become responsible, declare you to be of age and on your own.
Now lets start on our story.
First of all, there was the kitchen table which stood in a brownstone house which still bears the number 182, Clinton Street, Brooklyn. There, Lois saw me go into the depths. There, over the kitchen table, Ebby brought me these simple principles now enshrined in our Twelve Steps. In those days, there were but six steps: We admitted we couldn’t run our lives; we got honest with ourselves; we made a self-survey; we made restitution to the people we had harmed; we tried to carry this story one to the next; and we asked God to help us to do those things. That was the essence of the message over the kitchen table. In those days, we were associated with the Oxford Group. One of its founders was Sam Shoemaker, and this Group has just left Calvary House to come over to these larger quarters, I understand.
Our debt to the Oxford Group is simply immense. We might have found these principles elsewhere, but they did give them to us, and I want to again record our undying gratitude. We also learned from them, so far as alcoholics are concerned, what not to do—something equally important. Father Ed Dowling, a great Jesuit friend of ours, once said to me, “Bill, it isn’t what you people put into AA that makes it so good—it’s what you left out.”
We got both sets of notions from our Oxford Group friends, and it was through them that Ebby had sobered up and became my sponsor, the carrier of this message to me.
We began to go to Oxford Group meetings right over in Calvary House, where you’ve just been gathering, and it was there, fresh out of Towns Hospital, that I made my first pitch, telling about my strange experience, which did not impress the alcoholic who was listening. But something else did impress him. When I began to talk about the nature of this sickness, this malady, he pricked up his ears. He was a professor of chemistry, an agnostic, and he came up and talked afterward. Soon, he was invited over to Clinton Street – our very first customer.
We worked very hard with Freddy for three years, but alas, he remained drunk for eleven years afterward.
Other people came to us out of those Oxford Group audiences. We began to go down to Calvary Mission, an adjunct of the church in those days, and there we found a bountiful supply of real tough nuts to crack. We began to invite them to Clinton Street, and at this point the Groupers felt that we were overdoing the drunk business. It seemed they had the idea of saving the world; besides, they’d had a bad time with us. Sam and his associates he now laughingly tells me, were very much put out that they had gathered a big batch of drunks in Calvary House, hoping for a miracle. They’d put them upstairs in those nice apartments and had completely surrounded them with sweetness and light. But the drunks soon imported a flock of bottles, and one of them pitched a shoe out the apartment window right through one of those stained glass affairs of the church. So the drunks weren’t exactly popular when Wilson’s showed up.
At any rate we began to be with alcoholics all the time, but nothing happened for six months. Like the Groupers, we nursed them. In fact, over in Clinton Street, we developed in the next two or three years something like a boiler factory, a sort of clinic, a hospital, and a free boardinghouse, from which practically no one issued sober, but we had a pile of experience.
We began to learn the game, and after our withdrawing from the Oxford Group—oh, a year and a half from the time I sobered, in ’34—we began to hold meetings of the few who had sobered up. I suppose that was really the first AA meeting. The book hadn’t yet been written. We didn’t even call it Alcoholics Anonymous; people asked us who we were, and we said, “Well, we’re a nameless bunch of alcoholics.” I suppose the use of that word “nameless” sort of led us to the idea of anonymity, which was later clapped on the book at the time it was titled.
There were great doings in Clinton Street. I remember those meetings down in the parlor so well. Our eager discussion, our hopes, our fears—and our fears were very great. When anyone in those days had been sober a few months and slipped, it was a terrific calamity. I’ll never forget the day, a year and a half after he came to stay with us, that Ebby fell over, and we all said, “Perhaps this is going to happen to all of us.” Then, we began to ask ourselves why it was, and some of us pushed on.
At Clinton Street, I did most of the talking, but Lois did most of the work, and the cooking, and the loving of those early folks.
Oh my! The episodes that there were! I was away once on a business trip. (I’d briefly got back to business.) One of the drunks was sleeping on the lounge in the parlor. Lois woke up in the middle of the night, hearing a great commotion. He’d got a bottle; he’d also got into the kitchen and had drunk a bottle of maple syrup.
And he had fallen naked into the coal hod. When Lois opened the door, he asked for a towel to cover up his nakedness. She once led this same gentleman through the streets late at night looking for a doctor, and not finding a doctor, then looking for a drink, because, as he said, he could not fly on one wing!
On one occasion, a pair of them were drunk. We had five, and on another occasion, they were all drunk at the same time!
There was the time that two of them began to belabor each other with two-by-fours down in the basement. And then, poor Ebby, after repeated trials and failures, was finally locked out one night. But low and behold, he appeared anyway. He had come through the coal chute and up the stairs, very much begrimed.
So you see, Clinton Street was a kind of blacksmith shop, in which we were hammering away at these principles. For Lois and me, all roads lead back to Clinton Street.
In 1937, while we were still there, we got an idea that to spread AA we would have to have some sort of literature, guide rails for it to run on so it couldn’t get garbled. We were still toying with the idea that we had to have paid workers who would be sent to other communities. We thought we’d have to go into the hospital business. Out in Akron, where we had started the first group, they had a meeting and nominated me to come to New York and do all these things.
We solicited Mr. [John D.] Rockefeller [Jr.] and some of his friends, who gave us their friendship but, luckily, not much of their money. They gave Smithy [Dr. Bob] and me a little boost during the year of 1938, and that was all; they forced us to stand on our own.
In 1938, Clinton Street saw the beginning of the preparation of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The early chapters were written—oh, I should think—about May 1938. Then, we tried to raise money to get the thing published, and we actually sold stock to the local drunks in this book, not yet written. An all-time high for promotions!
Clinton Street also saw, on its second floor, in the bedroom, the writing of the Twelve Steps. We had got to Chapter Five in the book, and it looked like we would have to say at some point what the book was all about. So I remember lying there on the bed one night, and I was in one of my typical depressive snits, and I had an imaginary ulcer attack. The drunks who were supposed to be contributing, so that we could eat while the book was being written, were slow on the contributions, and I was in a damn bad frame of mind.
I lay there with a pad and pencil, and I began to think over these six steps that I’ve just recited to you, and said I to myself, “Well, if we put down these six steps, the chunks are too big. They’ll have to digest too much all at once. Besides, they can wiggle out from in between, and if we’re going to do a book, we ought to break those up into smaller pieces.”
So I began to write, and in about a half an hour, I think, I had busted them up into smaller pieces. I was rather pleasantly surprised that, when numbered, they added up to twelve—that’s significant. Very nice.
At that point, a couple of drunks sailed in. I showed them the proposed Twelve Steps, and I caught fits. Why did we need them when six were doing fine? And what did I mean by dragging God from the bottom of the list up to the top?
Meanwhile the meetings in the front parlor had largely turned into hassles over the chapters of the book. The roughs were submitted and read at every meeting, so that when the Twelve Steps were proposed, there was a still greater hassle.
Because I’d had this very sudden experience and was on the pious side, I’d lauded these Steps very heavily with the word “God.” Other people began to say, “This won’t do at all. The reader at a distance is just going to get scared off. And what about agnostic folks like us?” There was another terrific hassle, which resulted in this terrific ten-strike we had: calling God (as you understand Him) “the Higher Power,” making a hoop big enough so that the whole world of alcoholics can walk through it.
So, actually, those people who suppose that the elders of AA were going around in white robes surrounded by a blue light, full of virtue, are quite mistaken. I merely became the umpire of the immense amount of hassling that went into the preparation of the AA book, and that took place at Clinton Street.
Well, of course, the book was the summit of all our hopes at the time; along with the hassling, there was an immense enthusiasm. We tried to envision distant readers picking it up and perhaps writing in, perhaps getting sober. Could they do it on the book?
All of those things we speculated on very happily. Finally, in the spring of 1939, the book was ready. We’d made a prepublication copy of it; it had got by the Catholic Committee on Publications; we’d shown it to all sorts of people; we had made corrections. We had 5,000 copies printed, thinking that would be just a mere trifle—that the book would soon be selling millions of copies.
Oh, we were very enthusiastic, us promoters. The Reader’s Digest had promised to print a piece about the book, and we just saw those books going out in carloads.
Nothing of the sort happened. The Digest turned us down flat; the drunks had thrown their money into all this; there were hardly a hundred members in AA. And here the thing had utterly collapsed.
At this juncture, the meeting—the first meeting of the Manhattan Group, which really took place in Brooklyn—stopped, and it stopped for a very good reason.
That was that the landlord set Lois and me out into the street, and we didn’t even have money to move our stuff into storage. Even that and the moving van—that was done on the cuff.
Well, it was then the spring of 1939. Temporarily, the Manhattan Group moved to Jersey. It hadn’t got to Manhattan yet. A great friend, Horace C., let Lois and me have a camp belonging to himself and his mother, out at Green Pond. My partner in the book enterprise, old Hank P., now gone, lived at Upper Montclair.
We used to come down to 75 William Street, where we had the little office in which a good deal of the book was actually done. Sundays that summer, we’d come down to Hank’s house, where we had meetings which old-timers—just a handful now in Jersey—can remember.
The Alcoholic Foundation, still completely empty of money, did have one small account called the “Lois B. Wilson Improvement Fund.” This improvement fund was fortified every month by a passing of the hat, so that we had the summer camp, we had fifty bucks a month, and someone else lent us a car to try to revive the book Alcoholics Anonymous and the flagging movement.
In the fall of that year, when it got cold up there at the summer camp, we moved down to Bob V.’s. Many of you remember him and Mag. We were close by the Rockland asylum. Bob and I and others went in there, and we started the first institutional group, and several wonderful characters were pried out of there. I hope old Tom M. is here tonight—Tom came over to the V’s, where he had holed up with Lois and me, then put in a room called Siberia, because it was so cold.
We bought a coal stove for four dollars and kept ourselves warm there during the winter.
So did a wonderful alcoholic by the name of Jimmy. He never made good. Jimmy was one of the devious types, and one of our first remarkable experiences with Jimmy was this. When we moved from Green Pond, we brought Marty with us, who had been visiting, and she suddenly developed terrible pains in her stomach.
This gentleman, Jimmy, called himself a doctor. In fact, he had persuaded the authorities at Rockland that he was a wonderful physician. They gave him full access to the place. He had keys to all the surgical instruments and incidentally, I think he had keys to all the pill closets over there.
Marty was suffering awful agonies, and he said, “Well, there’s nothing to it, my dear. You’ve got gallstones.” So he goes over to Rockland. He gets himself some kind of fishing gadget that they put down gullets to fish around in there, and he fishes around and yanks up a flock of gallstones, and she hasn’t had a bit of trouble since. And, dear people, it was only years later that we learned the guy wasn’t a doctor at all.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan Group moved to Manhattan for the first time. The folks over here started a meeting in Bert T.’s tailor shop. Good old Bert is the guy who hocked his then-failing business to save the book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.
In the fall, he still had the shop, and we began to hold meetings there. Little by little, things began to grow. We went from there to a room in Steinway Hall, and we felt we were in very classic and good company that gave us an aura of respectability.
Finally, some of the boys—notably Bert and Horace—said, “A.A. should have a home. We really ought to have a club.” And so the old 24th Street Club, which had belonged to the artists and illustrators and before that was a barn going back to Revolutionary times, was taken over. I think Bert and Horace signed the first lease. They soon incorporated it, though, lest somebody slip on a banana peel outside. Lois and I, who had moved from the V’s to live with another A.A., then decided we wanted a home for ourselves, and we found a single room down in a basement on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village.
I remember Lois and me going through Grand Central wondering where we’d light next, just before the Greenwich Village move. We were very tired that day, and we walked off the main floor there and sat on one of those gorgeous marble stairways leading up to the balcony, and we both began to cry and say, “Where will we ever light? Will we ever have a home?”
Well, we had one for a while in Barrow Street. And when the club was opened up, we moved into one of those rooms there. Tom M. came over from the V’s, and right then and there a Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous was generated. It seemed that volunteers had been sweeping the club; it seemed that many of the alcoholics had keys to the club; and they came and went and sometimes stayed; and sometimes they got very drunk and acted very badly—doing we know not what. There had to be somebody there to really look after the place. So we thought we’d approach old Tom, who had a pension as a fireman. We said, “Tom, how would you like to come and live at the club?”
Tom says, “What’s on your mind?”
“Well,” we said, “we really need somebody here all the time, you know, to make the coffee and see that the place is heated and throw some coal on that furnace over there and lead the drunks outside if they’re too bad.”
“Ain’t ya gonna pay me?” Tom says.
“Oh, no,” we said. “This is Alcoholics Anonymous. We can’t have any professionals.”
Tom says, “I do my Twelfth Step work, I don’t charge ’em nothing. But what you guys want is a janitor, and if you’re going to get me, you’re going to pay, see?”
Well, we were very much disturbed about our own situation. We weren’t exactly paid—they were just passing the hat for us, you understand. I think that we went for seven years of the history of this Society with an average income of seventeen hundred bucks a year, which, for a former stockbroker, is not too big.
So this question of who is a professional and who isn’t bore very heavily at the time on Tom and me. And Tom began to get it settled. He began to show that if a special service was asked from anybody full-time, we’d have to pay or not get it.
So, finally, we haggled Tom down on the theory that he already had a pension, and he came to live there, and meetings began in that old club.
That old club saw many a terrific development, and from that club sprang all the groups in this area. The club saw the passage of the Rockefeller dinner, when we thought we’d all be rich as a movement, and Mr. Rockefeller saved us by not giving us money.
That club saw the Saturday Evening Post article published. In fact, the Post at that time said, “No pictures, no article.” If you will look up the March 1, 1941, issue of the Saturday Post, you will see a picture of the interior of the club, and a flock of us sitting before the fire. They didn’t use our names, but they insisted on pictures.
Anonymity wasn’t then quite what it is today. And with the advent of that piece, there was a prodigious rush of inquiries—about 6,000 of them.
By this time, we’d moved the little office from Newark, New Jersey, over to Vesey Street. You will find in the old edition of the book [Alcoholics Anonymous] “Box 58, Church Street Annex.” And that was the box into which the first inquiries came. We picked out that location because Lois and I were drifters, and we picked it because it was the center of the geographical area here. We didn’t know whether we’d light in Long Island, New Jersey, or Westchester, so the first A.A. post office box was down there with a little office alongside of it.
The volunteers couldn’t cope with this tremendous flock of inquiries—heartbreakers, but 6,000 of them! We simply had to hire some help. At that point, we asked you people if you’d send the foundation a buck apiece a year, so we wouldn’t have to throw that stuff in the wastebasket. And that was the beginning of the service office and the book company.
That club saw all those things transpire. But there was a beginning in that club at that time that none of us noticed very much. It was just a germ of an idea. It often looked, in after years, as though it might die out. Yet within the last three years, it has become what I think is one of the greatest developments that we shall ever know, and here I’m going to break into my little tale to introduce my partner in all this, who stayed with me when things were bad and when things have been good, and she’ll tell you what began upstairs in that club, and what has eventuated from it. Lois.”
(Lois then spoke about the formation and the early days of Al-Anon Family Groups.)
So, you see, it was in the confines of the Manhattan Group of those very, very early days that this germ of an idea came to life. Lois might have added that since the St. Louis conference, one new family group has started every single day of the week since, someplace in the world.
I think the deeper meaning of all this is that AA is something more than a quest for sobriety because we cannot have sobriety unless we solve the problem of life, which is essentially the problem of living and working together. And the family groups are straightening out the enormous twist that has been put on our domestic relations by our drinking. I think it’s one of the greatest things that’s happened in years.
Well, let’s cut back to old 24th Street. One more thing happened there:
Another Tradition was generated. It had to do with money. You know how slow I was on coming up with that dollar bill tonight? I suppose I was thinking back—some sort of unconscious reflex.
We had a deuce of a time getting that club supported, just passing the hat, no fees, no dues, just the way it should be. But the no fee and dues business was construed into no money at all—let George do it.
I’d been, on this particular day, down to the foundation office, and we’d just put out this dollar-a-year measuring stick for the alcoholics to send us some money if they felt like it. Not too many were feeling like it, and I remember that I was walking up and down the office damning these drunks.
That evening, still feeling sore about the stinginess of the drunks, I sat on the stairs at the old 24th Street Club, talking to some would-be convert. Tom B. was leading the meeting that night, and at the intermission, he put on a real plug for money, the first one that I’d ever heard. At that time, money and spirituality couldn’t mix, even in the hat. I mean, you mustn’t talk about money! Very reluctantly, we’d gone into the subject with Tom M. and the landlord. We were behind in the rent.
Well, Tom put on that heavy pitch, and I went on talking to my prospect, and as the hat came along, I fished in my pocket and pulled out half a buck.
That very day, I think, Ebby had come in the office a little the worse for wear, and with a very big heart, I had handed him five dollars. Our total income at that time was thirty bucks a week, which had come out of the Rockefeller dinner affair; so I’d given him five bucks of the thirty and felt very generous, you see.
But now comes the hat to pay for the light and heat and so forth—rent—and I pull out this half dollar and I look absent-mindedly at it, and I put my hand in the other pocket and pull out a dime and put it in the hat.
So I have never once railed at alcoholics for not getting up the money. There, you see, was the beginning of two A.A. Traditions—things that had to do with professionalism and money.
Following 1941, this thing just mushroomed. Groups began to break off out into the suburbs. But a lot of us still wanted a club, and the 24th Street Club just couldn’t do the trick. We got an offer from Norman Vincent Peale to take over a church at 41st Street. The church was in a neighborhood that had deteriorated badly—over around Ninth Avenue and 41st. In fact, it was said to be a rather sinful neighborhood, if you gather what I mean. The last young preacher that Peale had sent there seemed very much against drinking and smoking and other even more popular forms of sin; therefore, he had no parishioners.
Here was this tremendous church, and all that we could see was a bigger and bigger club in New York City. So we moved in. The body of the church would hold 1,000 people, and we had a hall upstairs that would hold another 800, and we visioned this as soon full. Then there were bowling alleys downstairs, and we figured the drunks would soon be getting a lot of exercises. After they warmed up down there, they could go upstairs in the gymnasium.
Then, we had a cooking apparatus for a restaurant. This was to be our home, and we moved in. Well, sure enough, the place filled up just like mad! Then, questions of administration, questions of morals, questions of meetings, questions of which was the Manhattan Group and which was the club and which was the Intergroup (the secretary of the club was also the Intergroup Secretary) began to get this seething mass into terrific tangles, and we learned a whole lot about clubs!
Whilst all this was going on, the AA groups were spreading throughout America and to foreign shores, and each group, like our own, was having its terrific headaches. In that violent period, nobody could say whether this thing would hang together or not. Would it simply explode and fly all to pieces? On thousands of anvils of experience, of which the Manhattan Group was certainly one (down in that 41st Street club, more sparks came off that anvil than any I ever saw), we hammered out the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which were first published in 1946 [April Grapevine]. We hammered out the rudiments of an Intergroup, which now has become one of the best there is anywhere, right here in New York.
Finally, however, the club got so big that it bust. The Intergroup moved. So did the Manhattan Group, with $5,000—its part of the take, which it hung on to. And from the Manhattan Group’s experience, we learned that—although the foundation needs a reserve—for God’s sake, don’t have any money in a group treasury!
The hassles about that $5,000 lasted until they got rid of it somehow.
Then, you all moved down to dear old Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary, the very place of our beginning. Now, we’ve made another move.
And so we grow, and such has been the road that leads back to the kitchen table at Clinton Street.